Dreams in the Desert- page 4 | Travel | Smithsonian
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Dreams in the Desert

The allure of Morocco, with its unpredictable mix of exuberance and artistry, has seduced adventurous travelers for decades


Under a brick culvert, a metal gate releases water to the groves by a gravityfed system flowing into small irrigation canals. “The engineers calculated the slope the canals needed to ensure that the precise amount of water reached each tree,” he says. But the system has deteriorated. “If there’s not restoration soon, the walls risk giving way, flooding the garden with millions of gallons of water.”


Back in Marrakech I meet with Gary Martin, an American ethnobotanist who is trying to persuade the government to restore the gardens of the BahiaPalace, which are also dying. The palace is a sprawling 19th-century showcase of masterful tile work and wood carving. Martin and I wind past high-ceilinged ballrooms to emerge into a sun-blasted, abandoned garden that covers more than 12 acres. “It’s a wreck,” I say tactlessly, surveying the withered trees. “It’s definitely devastated now,” Martin cheerfully acknowledges. “But think of the potential! Just look at those daliyas [shady iron-and-wood grape arbors] and that immense bay laurel! If the irrigation system were fixed, this place could be a Garden of Eden in the heart of the medina.”


Plunging back into the old city’s dirt streets, I struggle to keep up as Martin maneuvers through swarms of merchants peddling everything from leather purses to azure pottery. Berber carpets cascade out of shops like multicolored waterfalls. After a depressing detour through the animal souk with its fullgrown eagles trapped in cramped cages, pelts of leopards and other endangered species, we arrive at the Riad Tamsna, a 1920s house that Gary Martin and his wife, Meryanne Loum-Martin, have converted into a tea salon, bookstore and gallery.


The minute I pass through its heavy cedar doors, I feel I’ve entered a different world. A soft light filters onto a courtyard, sparely furnished with couches, handcrafted tables and a large basin of water with floating rose petals. It is soothingly quiet. “There are not many places in the medina where you can rest and collect your thoughts,” Meryanne says, as a waiter in a scarlet fez pours mint tea.


Of Senegalese descent and formerly a lawyer in Paris, Meryanne now designs furniture, and her candelabra, chairs and mirrors complement exhibitions of art, jewelry, textiles and crafts by local designers—as well as works by photographers and painters from France and the United States—in the restored palace. After tea, we go up to a rooftop terrace, where the 230-foot-high Koutoubia minaret dominates the skyline. As a copper sun sets, muezzins sound their overlapping calls to prayer, crackling over scattered loudspeakers like a musical round.


About Richard Covington

Richard Covington is a Paris-based author who covers a wide range of cultural and historical subjects and has contributed to Smithsonian, The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, among other publications.

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